california wildfires

PG&E Says Its Equipment May Have Started 30,000-Acre Wildfire in Butte County

Repair man spots blown fuses in a conductor atop a pole, a tree leaning into the conductor and fire at the base of the tree, utility says

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The Butte County District Attorney’s Office has joined Cal Fire’s investigation into the still-raging Dixie Fire in the Feather River Canyon – which began last week and has been preliminarily tied to a tree leaning into a 12,000-volt PG&E distribution line, NBC Bay Area has learned.

"We’ve been on the case since Tuesday (July 13), along with Cal Fire, to see if there’s any sort of criminal activity that might be involved," said Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey, whose office successfully prosecuted the utility for the 2018 Camp fire that left 85 dead and destroyed the town of Paradise.

"We have a tree into a line and obviously trees shouldn’t go into lines," Ramsey said. "The fire did start in that general area."

Cal Fire and Butte County investigators seized evidence from the line on Sunday night as well as parts of the tree that fell, Ramsey said.

"We are examining that, even as the fire rages up further," he said, adding that investigators also are "very interested" to find out who was flying a drone "which caused Cal Fire to pull their resources back and may be a major cause of the fire getting out of control."

Late Sunday, PG&E separately filed a report with regulators describing the events on the day of the July 13 fire, which began on the Bucks Creek 1101 circuit near the border of Plumas and Butte counties.

According to the regulatory filing, the first sign of trouble came at about 7 a.m. on July 13, when PG&E’s system detected an outage at Cresta Dam in the Feather River Canyon off Highway 70.

According to the company’s regulatory filing, the responding technician saw "from a distance what he thought was a blown fuse" on the line on the hill above him, according to the filing, which does not specify what time he spotted the damage.

But due to steep terrain and the closure of a critical access bridge due to roadwork, the technician didn’t arrive at the scene until 4:40 p.m., the company said. By then, he saw evidence of two fuses having blown on the nearby pole and recovered a third still-intact, fuse.

The PG&E troubleman also saw "what appeared to him to be a healthy green tree leaning" into the line, which was still intact, and a small fire at the base. He alerted supervisors, who called 911 and learned authorities were already en route.

Cal Fire arrived at 5:30 and began dropping fire retardant and water on the fire, which continued to grow to 15 acres before exploding out of control, PG&E noted in its report.

In its report to regulators, PG&E confirmed Cal Fire had seized the wire, insulators and fuse evidence, as well as a parts of the tree.

"PG&E submits this report in an abundance of caution given Cal Fire's collection of PG&E facilities in connection with its investigation," the report says.

The company’s tree-line clearance efforts have been the extensive focus of a federal judge overseeing its probation stemming from the 2010 San Bruno gas explosion. The company has agreed to consider where trees are tall enough to fall onto power lines in deciding where and when to shut off power to protect public safety.

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